Now that the NFL Combine is over and teams have a better idea of the talent they will pursue in the draft, it’s time to turn our focus to free agency, which begins later this month.
Some teams will court free agency eagerly, with cash bulging from their pockets. Those will be the most interesting teams to watch since they can set the standards for the rest of the market. They also, unfortunately, tend to be the teams with the most roster holes to address.
Let’s take a look at the teams with the most cap space and attempt to project how they will spend their glorious riches. Note: Cap space estimates via Spotrac.com.
Indianapolis Colts: $76.7 million
Needs: Cornerback, edge rusher, offensive line, inside linebacker.
Suggested moves: The Colts’ defense was a mess last season, allowing a league-worst 64 pass completions of at least 20 yards. The defensive backfield in particular needs a lot of help. Vontae Davis is gone and Rashaan Melvin could soon be as well. But if the Colts can re-sign Melvin and bring in a free agent like Trumaine Johnson or Kyle Fuller, things would immediately look better.
They’ll also need another edge rusher, but that might be hard to come by on the market. It might make more sense to spend on an offensive lineman like Andrew Norwell from Carolina, then target Bradley Chubb with the No. 3 pick in the draft.
Chicago Bears: $80.3 million
Needs: Offensive line, wide receiver, cornerback, linebacker.
Suggested moves: The Bears are all-in on Mitchell Trubisky, so it’s time to give him some help in the form of pass-catchers and blockers. Jarvis Landry’s name has been out there, but if he signs a franchise tag with the Dolphins, the Bears would have to make a trade for him.
I like Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson better anyway, assuming he has recovered from his ACL injury — all indications have been good on that front. I’d go big for him – or Marqise Lee if Robinson proves too pricey – and then nab an offensive tackle such as Pittsburgh’s Chris Hubbard. Then Chicago can bolster its defensive backfield in the draft with Ohio State’s Denzel Ward at No. 8. If the front office can hit these targets, Bear fans should be feeling bullish about 2018.
New York Jets: $94.9 million
Needs: Quarterback, edge rusher, cornerback, running back.
Suggested moves: The Jets are desperate at quarterback. The best of the sad bunch was 39-year-old Josh McCown, a free agent. The Jets appear to be a top-four (and perhaps top-two) candidate for free-agent QB Kirk Cousins. That is probably the best play for them to make. Yes, their defensive needs are many, but with the best pass rushers (Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansah and Dallas’s DeMarcus Lawrence) out of play and top prospect Bradley Chubb likely out of reach at No. 6, the focus should be on Cousins. I understand anyone who expresses reluctance to give Cousins the reported deal he seeks – three years, $90 million guaranteed – but remember that it’s not your money, and the Jets have a ton of cash sitting around.
The Jets also need to do everything they can to keep linebacker Demario Davis, then use whatever they have left to shore up their defensive backfield, which has struggled and has not allowed Todd Bowles to implement his preferred man-to-man defense. It would be good to land at least one of E.J. Gaines, Kyle Fuller or Rashaan Melvin.
Cleveland Browns: $111.7 milllion
Needs: Quarterback, cornerback, safety, right tackle.
Suggested moves: The Browns are great at compiling draft picks and cash, they just don’t seem to know what to do with them. Remember, the Browns traded out of the No. 2 pick in 2016, allowing the Philadelphia Eagles to draft Carson Wentz. The Browns also traded out of the No. 12 pick last year to allow the Houston Texans to grab Deshaun Watson.
Once again the Browns have a lot of draft picks – four in the top 35, including Nos. 1 and 4 – and a ton of cash. So after they spend some money to hire a malpractice defense lawyer, what should they do with the rest of their money?
First and foremost, they should resist the urge to trade their draft picks for yet more future picks. There is plenty of talent to be had in the draft, so they should draft that talent. Pick a quarterback at No. 1 – Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield – whichever one they like best. If the Colts somehow pass on Chubb at No. 3, grab him. If not, take Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. The offense is now instantly better.
Now to free agency: Left tackle Joe Thomas could retire, but for now we’ll assume he’s coming back, so that’s not a need. In addition to Thomas, the interior line isn’t bad, but the Browns do need help at right tackle, so they would be wise to spend for Miami’s Ja’Waun James or Pittsburgh’s Chris Hubbard.
The defensive backfield needs a lot of depth, so the Browns should make a play for a starter such as Malcolm Butler, Rashaan Melvin, Kyle Fuller or Bashaud Breeland, and also go for a second-tier guy like Patrick Robinson or Byron Maxwell. You could also see them target Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick in the draft. The Browns should also make Ram safety Lamarcus Joyner a top priority. Pro Football Focus graded Joyner as the third-best safety in the NFL last season, and Joyner has experience working with Gregg Williams.